Christian Mission and the Freedom of Religion

By Villa-Vicencio, Charles | International Review of Mission, January 1994 | Go to article overview
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Christian Mission and the Freedom of Religion


Villa-Vicencio, Charles, International Review of Mission


For me Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, but I am opposed to proselytisation. Our task as Christians is simply to live attractive lives that are transparent with the gospel. We take ourselves too seriously when we think that God is relying on our evangelical campaigns to make everyone Christians, in order for them to enter into communion with God.(1)

Religious pluralism has always been a characteristic of South African society. The Declaration on Religious Rights and Responsibilities, and the clauses on the freedom of religion recommended to the Constituent Assembly due to be elected on 27 April 1994 suggests, however, that pluralism should be enshrined within the legal identity of a new South Africa. This will require Christianity, which has been shown preferential treatment by the state since the beginning of white conquest, to reassess its missionary activity. For the first time churches will seriously be confronted with the institutionalized claims of other religions. Christians will be required to share with people of other faiths -- as well as atheists, secular humanists, Marxists and others who are not Christian -- in the nation-building process. They will be structurally engaged with people who are not Christians, but have often done more to fight the evils of apartheid than most church members. In the process, it is hoped that Christian triumphalism will be a thing of the past.

Rediscovering the Incarnation

Missionary activity in South Africa has been largely influenced by Protestant piety. It has also been almost exclusively western. This has given Christianity in South Africa a strong christocentric character -- requiring any assessment of mission history in South Africa to take Eastern Orthodoxy's concern that christocentric theology separates Christ from the mystery of the Trinity seriously. Metropolitan George Khodr argues that having "displaced (Christ) from the bosom of the Father," christocentrism tends to further neglect the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in revealing the hidden Christ.(2) A peril of such theology is the reduction of the divine mystery to an identifiable object (whom we call the Christ), that can be possessed, owned, exploited and used to serve our own ideological ends.

This is a concern also central to Evangelical Reformed theology, showing obvious common ground between this tradition and Eastern Orthodoxy.(3) Karl Barth was correct: To reduce Christ to an "archetype" of the existing order is to reduce him to "little more than an eminent Victorian with quaintly democratic instincts, or a German pater-familias given to highmindedness and sweet talk."(4) The outcome is a christology that provides divine legitimation for a dominant ideology. This has been the case in colonial and apartheid South Africa.

By definition, the incarnation is at the same time a kenotic activity, within which the eternal Son is divested of all heavenly attributes in order to become human. It is within Christ's "self-abasement" -- as the one who is hungry, in prison, exploited and marginalized -- that the incarnate God is found.

In brief, the mystery of God and the self-emptying of that mystery constitute a dialectic within a biblical doctrine of the incarnation that triumphalistic notions of Christian mission tend to overlook. The Council of Chalcedon was compelled to conclude that although the union between the two natures of Christ was complete, the differences between the divine and human natures remained. Jesus is the eternal Son of God. Jesus is also a first century Palestinian Jew. Put differently, to encounter the self-revelation of God in Christ is never to encounter a stranger.(5)

Yet, herein lies an extreme danger. The Christ of South African missions has all too often (with some exceptions), borne the marks of a European settler. Speaking in a different context, Stanley Samartha asks, "How can we sing a foreign song in the Lord's land?

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